Russia Plays its Balkan Card

February 19, 1994

Russia is back! The ideological Cold War may be over but the security imperatives of that vast country remain. By intervening in the Bosnian situation just before NATO's threatened air strikes against the besiegers of Sarajevo, President Boris N. Yeltsin seems to have pulled off a diplomatic coup of major proportions. In one bold stroke he has:

* Provided Bosnian Serbs with a face-saving way to withdraw their troops encircling the Bosnian capital before the NATO bombing deadline set for tomorrow at 7 p.m.

* Given the Western powers a probable reprieve from deeper military entanglement in the Balkans.

* Outflanked his ultra-nationalist rivals and reestablished a powerful Russian "Pan-Slav" presence in the former Yugoslavia for the first time since Marshal Tito kicked out the Stalinists.

* Underscored once again that the American and Russian superpowers, either working in concert or at loggerheads, are a necessary factor in imposing peace on squabbling Europeans.

Given the uncertainties and broken pledges that abound on the Balkan scene, the Bosnian Serbs still have the option of plunging the region into what Soviet mediator Vitaly Churkin describes as "all-out war." But chances have definitely improved for a Serbian pull-out that meets NATO and United Nations requirements. If so, the sighs of relief will be palpable in every capital from Moscow to Washington. For if air strikes should materialize, 12,000 U.N. troops, hundreds of international relief workers and all other foreign nationals in the area could become targets or hostages of the Serbs. And with 800 Russian troops heading for Sarajevo, the consequences could multiply.

What now? Provided the cease-fire holds, world attention should refocus on Mostar and Tuzla and other Muslim strongholds under siege without benefit of television cameras. Then it can be determined (a) if NATO threats will push the Serbs and Croats to real peace negotiations; (b) if the Muslims will seize on increased Western support to regain territory militarily rather than accept partition, and (c) if the belated U.S. and Russian entry into the negotiation process will bear fruit.

Because U.N. peace negotiators have fastened on a "Sarajevo first" policy, the removal of Serbian armor must be followed up with demilitarization of the environs of the city, the elimination of a confrontation line and, perhaps, direct U.N. governance of the capital -- a step Moscow proposed days ago. But the larger objective should be a partition agreement for the whole country that permits a viable Muslim state with access to the sea.

Strictly European efforts to bring this about have been unavailing. It will take arms-length collaborations between the United States and Russia to achieve a real peace and to keep turmoil from spreading in the Balkans. That should be the lesson Washington learns from Moscow's dramatic entry into the Bosnian crisis. Russia's intervention was welcome and helpful.

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